Friday, June 3, 2011

Some Thoughts on Hosting a Heist

Here are some things I learned while trying to run a heist in my old school game:

Reconnaissance is Exploration
And much the way you would expect it to take some time for players to get the feel for a dungeon level, it will take some time for them to case the location of the heist. 

One of the reasons it takes so long is that players will adjust and concoct new plans for each bit of intel they get.  Find out about the guard patrols-- plan all the ways they might be distracted; realize there is a sewer underneath-- plan how to use it stealthily.  So, learning about a place will be a continuous, rolling strategy session.

That's all fine, because with the right players it's great fun, but it takes time.  Next time I would plan for the fact that casing the joint will require a whole session and the heist will go down the next session.

You could give them all the intel at the start, but then I would treat that the same way you would treat giving a party a map and rundown of a dungeon level: make the most of the player's anticipation of very difficult parts and make the most of the confusion and drama a few errors thrown in can create.  So the fun shifts from, "What could be behind this door?" to "How are we going to handle the troll behind this door?"  Or, even "Why did the thief lie about the troll behind that door?"

Consequences, Consequences, Consequences
The whole reason you case a place is because it's too dangerous to go right in.  That may be because you will get killed or the person you are trying to save will get killed, or maybe, the object you're trying to get to will just teleport away.

This seems completely obvious, but it's something I messed up.  First, the only legal repercussion my players had faced was not that bad.  Second, I didn't put enough guards at my location.  Third, I didn't limit my players movement/power enough.

So I recommend: Make the heist happen somewhere where weapons are forbidden.  Make the heist happen where trouble is expected and if the guards come the players will likely be killed.  Or make the legal consequences dire.  And make sure the players know all this.  In other words, if they can just enter the place, swords drawn, shields raised and win the day, it's a dungeon, not a heist.

I put a lot of effort into not trying to expect what the players would do.  I put trees so they might climb the walls.  I put a sewer they might sneak through.  I had pilgrims flowing in and out of the place so they could do some easing reconnaissance and possibly sneak in that way.  I put a place they might dig under the wall.  I included a supply/corpse wagon that they might sneak onto.  I also made sure the party had several magic items that might be of use.

And this worked pretty well.  But, I think to encourage players to break into teams, especially, more than two teams, would require more skillful design.

Why does it matter?  Because much of the drama of the heist is relying on the actions of your compatriots.  If they screw up, your job is that much harder.  Also, it puts players in the position of an observer for a bit, rooting for the other players in the way a regular dungeon adventure doesn't.

So, I would want to design the heist location better to try and make a two or three prong approach a necessity.  Magical locks, magical alarms, nested locations.

The Trouble Meter
I got two results of complications during play.  They both worked well just the way a random encounter mixes things up in an interesting way.  But, the whole Trouble Meter went out the window because my players immediately made themselves obvious to everyone by creating a loud distraction.  I never ended up escalating the trouble meter.

So, you need to take distractions into consideration, because they are part of the genre.  I think this might be related to me not making the location hard/scary enough.  It's one thing to have a patrol distracted for a bit so someone can slip by, and another to say "Hey, here we are.  We are going to cause a hell of a lot of trouble!"  Isn't that why guards are there?  My players should have been much more leery of raising the general alarm.  Or, I should have had a segmented location, where the second team could have still raised an alarm within their area.

The Event Clock
In a pseudo-medieval setting you have dawn, dusk, and noon.  Anything else will have to be rung from a church bell or something.  Times won't be as precise as in a more modern setting.  So the clock wasn't that important during our session. 

I think this is closely related to teams, though.  One of the basic ways one team can let down another in this genre is if they get their timing off.  They might get hung up because of a complication or get sloppy and start a distraction too soon.  So, to make the clock more relevant you need teams and you need time dependent tasks: "Once the magic door is opened you have thirty minutes before it closes again, permanently."

But, it means you need a way to measure time too.  pseudo-medieval characters aren't running around with Timexes.  How do they know when they are supposed to start the distraction?  This means players will need to utilize magic that extends the senses ("When you hear us start yelling, go!") or creates a link between the players.  Or, that the location itself needs to offer some semi-regular events that players can utilize as time markers.


  1. "This means players will need to utilize magic that extends the senses ("When you hear us start yelling, go!") or creates a link between the players."

    So, in a word, a Petalmind?

  2. on timekeeping: not necessarily. Medieval recipes often give times in chant durations - stir the sauce for 3 Hail Marys. That could be great if you can supply something for them to be reciting, especially alongside your jenga mechanic - adding a realworld time limit. There are candle-clocks and hourglasses ( although neither is good for exactly synchronizing actions - walking them around will throw off their times, which are likely to be variable anyway). Still, that's all good for adding tension - what if you drop or shake the glass? I have a friend who wrote his thesis partly on the bells of Florence: there was a strict sequence to their ringing, church by church and guild by guild. A famous rebellion was organized around them - their ringing out of sequence was the signal to start, which meant one team had to break into a church tower before the rest could assault the palace... There's a lot more, but this is a comment field and I should be finishing my own chapter.

  3. Also, holy days and ringing the changes give you long, specific and precise timings. Bells rung continuously have their own rhythm. Even without resorting to prophecies or magic rituals to add meaning to these special rings, you could use them to organise heists: the mother superior will be wafting incense for the full changes, 54 minutes. That's how long you've got.

  4. Hm.. It seems to me that you take a bottom-up approach: You put a sewer in case they want to crawl, pilgrims in case they want to go in in disguise etc.

    Have you tried a more ad-hoc approach with 'yesbuts'? "Can we get in via the sewers?" -> "yes, but there are bars and you will make a lot of noise if you saw or hammer them". "Can we get in disguised?" -> "Yes, there are plenty of hooded pilgrims going in and out. But they flagellate themselves on each step!" "Can I climb the wall and get in through a window?"->"Yes, but you'll have to pass two difficult passages and you will only have time for three skill-tests in between two patrols" "Can I give the thief more time by chatting to the guards and delaying their tour?" "Yes, but you will have to pass one skill-test for each round you want to delay the patrol."

    This could give you a much faster and more fluent game. It also obviates the reconnaissance part. Instead, give each player the opportunity to tell what he found out via a flash-back scene and one skill test. If the player fails, its additional complications. If he succeeds the character found a possibility to circumvent or neutralize a complication.

    Re time: Even in the middle ages time existed! and while they probably were more laid back then, it certainly got busy too every once in a while... Time pressure is not dependent on an actual clock or on common time: The parade is over, the guards will return any minute now! The next patrol is just around the corner, you can hear them chat! You better help your friend out now, cause he'll fall off that balcony any time now!

    Breaking them up: If for a given challenge each PC has to succeed the appropriate test *on her own*, then only charming PCs will be able to chat up the guards, only agile PCs will be able to climb the wall, only strong PCs will be able to jump the moat. All you need to do is make sure all those things have to happen *at the same time* and *in different places*. The trick is to make the challenges interconnected: it only makes sense to climb the wall when the guards are distracted. It only makes sense to jump over the moat if the back door on the other side is unlocked at the right time ...

  5. On a phone I'll be brief.

    @C'nor: yes, they would make the perfect hoisters, also secret cult or ninja clan :)

    @Richard: exactly, ringing the changes is the kind of thing a DM needs to think about and make apparent to players so they know they can use it as a timing mechanism.

    @lior: absolutely, you could improv it all. But if a DM is not careful they might end up with a situation where they haven't provided players with a good way to keep time, or decent tasks to be tackled by a team. So, if there is time to prepare, these are things I recommend a DM running a heist think about.